Citizens participating directly in the decisions that affect their lives is a key part of any democracy. Both the Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the State of Global Democracy by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance consider citizen participation in policymaking an important factor impacting the quality of democracy in a country.
With the rise of technological innovations in India over the last few years, many government initiatives have tried to leverage online platforms to create a dialogue between the state and the citizens and to increase citizen participation in public policymaking. For instance, the Government of India’s ministries such as the Labour and Employment as well as various state governments have started using their websites to share policy drafts and solicit feedback from citizens and civil society. In 2014 the Government of India also launched the MyGov.in platform, which aims to collaborate with different public institutions for engaging with citizens in policy planning. In the same year, the Ministry of Law and Justice also released the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy. While the policy fell short in mandating citizen consultation for laws before they went to the legislature, it directed all central government ministries and departments to upload the draft of proposed legislations and summaries of the feedback/comments of the consultations in the pre-legislative stages to their respective websites.
Nearly eight years after the release of the policy guidelines and launch of the platform, the problem of citizens not having a voice in policymaking processes seems to have worsened.
In recent years, a number of laws have been passed by the government without following the necessary consultation proceedings. Last year the Ministry of Labour and Employment passed the four labour codes. Even though government documents claim to have held multiple discussions with the central trade unions, employers’ associations, and representatives of state governments, no details or summaries of these proceedings are available on any public forum. The MyGov.in platform does not say anything about it either. Similarly, the Ministry of Finance did not hold any consultations with the impacted communities in the case of the Foreign Contribution Regulations Amendments Act, 2020. The Ministry of Home Affairs did not hold any consultations either for the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
India is still at a very nascent stage when it comes to citizen participation.
In another recent example, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, was amended to raise the minimum marriageable age for girls to 21 years. Prior to this, a task force was set up by the government to consider the pros and cons of increasing the marriageable age. The task force conducted some consultations with young women through closed-door invitations to a set of selected nonprofits. The proceeding details and summaries were not shared publicly. Moreover, the report of the task force was not released in the public domain. The only rationale provided by the government was that raising the age would lower maternal mortality rate, improve nutritional levels, and increase higher education opportunities for young women. Multiple experts expressed concerns about the strategy being adopted; however, there was no response from the task force or the government. By passing the amendments without building public consensus, the intention of holding consultations was defeated in this case because the government did not provide explanations to the questions raised or consider itself answerable to the concerns of the experts.
The challenges with involving citizens in online consultations
Consulting citizens online is not without its share of challenges. Some of these are:
1. Access: There exists a deep digital divide in terms of access to devices as well as to reliable and affordable internet connectivity. Typically, it is the poor and marginalised who do not have access to online technology. Additionally, English is the preferred language in most of the current online discussions, which further disincentivises those citizens who are not comfortable with the language.
2. Existing power hierarchies: Discussions on public policy are inherently political, and existing power hierarchies are often replicated in these discussions, especially on social media. The ‘uncivil’ culture of the online discourse—where trolls and hate speech often dominate—does not provide a safe and secure space for democratic deliberation, particularly for women and gender-nonconforming persons. This may cause a sense of discomfort in engaging online. Creating safe spaces requires building mutual trust and respect, especially for marginalised communities to share and communicate their vulnerabilities and lived experiences. Online platforms may not enable listening with empathy to each other’s point of view, which is an important aspect of creating a safe space.
3. Lack of political will and know-how: India is still at a very nascent stage when it comes to citizen participation. Most public officials are not trained to hold and facilitate citizen consultation. Simultaneously, citizens are also not trained to provide relevant and mature feedback. Countries such as Estonia, which are further along in this journey, have invested in building the capacities of civil servants and citizens. In India, there is an overall lack of political will and positive culture for direct citizen participation. However, a large part of these challenges can be overcome if there is a political will.
How do we increase political will for citizen consultation?
Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA)—the organisation we work at—recently undertook a research study. The report was called Institutionalising Online Citizen Participation in Policymaking in India, and as part of it we compiled a protocol for citizen consultation in policymaking with an exhaustive list of recommendations that needs attention from members of parliament. These include:
- Members of parliament holding specific ministries need to ensure that their ministry mandatorily consults citizens in the pre-legislative stage.
- Impacted communities, experts, and government representatives must be brought into the consultations.
- Information, reports, and summaries emerging from consultations should be made available in the public domain. Importance must be given to the principles of inclusive democratic participation, which includes informing the citizens, creating spaces for citizens to voice their opinions, listening to the citizens, and being accountable to them.
- The Ministry of Law and Justice should ensure that the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy is mandatorily followed in policy planning.
India needs a robust framework to institutionalise citizen participation. This framework must be:
- Informative—citizens must have adequate, timely, authentic, and usable information.
- Inclusive—the space for deliberation must be perceived as safe, open, accessible, and respectful
- Engaging—active, sensitive, and competent facilitation for empathic listening is crucial to encourage citizens during the deliberation.
- Accountable—sharing summaries and results and utilising inputs received from the citizens are critical in ensuring accountability as well as in assuring citizens that their voices have been heard and valued.
With the rise in technological innovations and launch of platforms such as MyGov, India must make long-term investments in promoting online citizen consultations.
Across the world many countries such as Taiwan, Estonia, and the United States have introduced citizen consultation proceedings in the pre-legislative stages of policymaking, which India can learn from. The Taiwanese model, for example, has a hybrid approach of holding consultations. The platform, vTaiwan, is an offline–online interface for the citizens to participate in the lawmaking process in Taiwan. Citizens who register on the mailing list of the vTaiwan platform receive updates and information from the organisers for participation in the policymaking processes. The platform enables dialogue between multiple stakeholders and gives importance to consensus building. This is done using Polis, a software that allows participants to post statements and mark whether they agree, disagree, or prefer to pass on a particular piece of legislation. Polis then uses machine-learning technology to analyse consensus and differences in opinions. The web platforms used are built on free and open-source softwares, which means that they are more transparent and publicly available to be modified and used in other contexts. This, in turn, strengthens the credibility of the citizen participation platform.
With the rise in technological innovations and launch of platforms such as MyGov, it is important for India to make long-term investments in promoting online citizen consultations. This includes mandating policy-level implementation for institutionalising pre-legislative consultations, bringing about cultural change for direct citizen participation, as well as building the capacities of the government and citizens to hold consultations in a mature manner. For citizen participation to happen meaningfully and not be tokenistic, the government must first acknowledge that they are accountable and answerable to their citizens.